Previously published on Forbes.com.
I was in the middle of a four-hour flight from Dallas to Seattle. The plane was completely full. The babies and children were done with sitting still. And the flight attendants were starting to look a little weary of the many demands of the passengers. But then, one of the crew members got creative. She engaged a five-year-old passenger to help her with her job. The little girl was thrilled. She had a sticker on her sweater and little blue sanitary gloves on. Passengers perked up when the little girl asked if we wanted water.
This is the art of making the mundane fun. And it’s a good example of the kind of inspired thinking every team member needs to be bringing to the table.
Today’s world demands more from teams than just cranking out the work. We need people who are creative, who think for themselves and build on each other’s ideas, who exceed expectations and deliver outrageous results. The question is how do you go beyond productivity, efficiency and execution to something bigger and ultimately more important?
Productivity often has to do with addressing the same tasks over and over again as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, this prevents your team from challenging themselves to really think. And the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset can be a hard one to break. But when you encourage and inspire creative thinking, your employees will begin to see the bigger picture and retarget their productive focus on issues with a deeper human impact.
Make no mistake about it: You will create a transactional team if all you are focused on is efficiency. People will talk to someone when they need something from them, or when they have a ball to pass. One plus one will always equal two. This doesn’t allow for the spontaneous and creative conversation to arise where one plus one equals three or thirty and everyone’s minds are blown.
How do you build a team where people’s best thinking can emerge? Here are seven ways you can change the way you lead and inspire your team:
1. Get better at asking good questions. Consider starting with a better question. The design firm IDEO encourages teams to begin with, “How might we…?” “How might we improve X … or completely reimagine Y… or find a new way to accomplish Z?” In one of our client systems recently, a team was challenged to create a new company-wide reward system. They started by asking a big question, “How might we help employees feel recognized for doing meaningful work that adds value to the organization?” This is a bigger question than, “How do we revamp our reward system?” “How might we…” questions get people to expand their view.
2. Change the way you meet. To make creativity more of a possibility in your team, you have to change up your meeting routine. You can’t schedule a weekly, two-hour meeting with the same old agenda every time. Instead, schedule meetings that are more like creative brainstorming sessions. Try short, fast stand-up meetings, like huddles. Pass the information that’s needed. Keep it brief. Keep the energy moving.
3. Ditch diplomacy. Let people say what they feel. Encourage your team members to say what they are really thinking (without personal attacks, of course) rather than worrying about being "nice" or hurting the feelings of others. Create a culture where people can ask hard questions and not become defensive. This ensures that your team doesn’t become complacent. With your encouragement, they will be constantly thinking and talking about what really matters to them and asking the smartest questions.
4. Put your people first. Putting customers first is a popular slogan, but we can learn from winning CEOs like Virgin Group's Richard Branson and Zappos’ Tony Hsieh, who have proved that putting the team first is what makes customers happy. It’s common sense, isn’t it? Fight for your people. Defend them. Protect them and take good care of them. First, not last.
5. Inspire responsibility and provide autonomy. At any organization with a big vision, even the most junior employees carry a lot of responsibility. Hold people accountable to big expectations and give them the autonomy to make their own decisions (with minimal guidance). This creates an atmosphere of resourcefulness and scrappiness that strongly supports creativity.
6. Make it safe to fail. A key component of fostering an inspiring environment is giving people the freedom to fail. The fear of failure cripples creativity and hamstrings the flow of ideas and, ultimately, productivity. Fear keeps us coloring between the lines and removes all possibility of improving, streamlining or creating new and more effective ways to work.
7. Have some fun. If people aren’t having any fun, they aren’t going to be inspired or creative. But in the US, we are highly focused on getting stuff done — efficiency — and it’s making work no fun. Ask your employees to tell you what is fun for them. Some companies bring foosball tables in. IDEO has a bar set up around the IT department in the center of their building, and they host a happy hour at 5:00 pm on the first Friday of every month. A quick search can point you in lots of new directions for creating a fun culture.
If you take the time — and it does require an investment of time and energy — to inspire your team, people will be more willing to take risks, to share half-baked ideas, to tell the truth when they’ve made a mistake and to lean into one another when the going gets rough. It will all add up to a more creative, connected, and higher performing team, one that’s not afraid to push the boundaries and soar to new heights.